Julian Crouch: playing with the devil

Welcome to Puppet Season at the Artlog, and a first week in which we’ll be specifically celebrating contemporary puppetry. All this because I’m right in the middle of creating the puppets for the forthcoming The Mare’s Tale for Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra, and so puppets are much on my mind.

We kick off with a combination of the old and new: the old in the person of Mr Punch, and the new in the sprightly reinvention of him by that exponent of all things puppety, Mr Julian Crouch.

Above: Shockheaded Peter

In 1996 Julian Crouch, together with Lee Simpson and Phelim McDermott, became the three founding artistic directors of Improbable Theatre. Crouch was co-director and co-designer of the West End hit show that had pantomime and puppetry at its heart, Shockheaded Peter. Based on the 1845 German children’s book Der Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffmann, Shockheaded Peter had been commissioned by the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Lyric Hammersmith, and debuted in Leeds before moving to London in 1998 and thereafter appearing on a world tour.

Mr Punch with Julian Crouch

The set for The Devil and Mr Punch.

The Devil and Mr Punch was originally produced by Improbable, commissioned by the Barbican (London), Walker Art Center (Mineapolis) and the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. The production was directed by Crouch, who devised it with Rob Thirtle, Nick Haverson, John Foti, Saskia Lane, Jessica Scott and Seamus Maynard. While not the first time Punch has been restored to his full, murderous horror by those intent on firmly kicking all the fey, kiddie-friendly, new-man revisionism of the 20th-21st centuries into the wings… credit must be given to opera composer Harrison Birtwhistle and Czech film-maker Jan Svankmejer for having long since achieved that… nevertheless Crouch is to be commended for returning the character to his puppet origins. Punch is the offspring of devils and whores, born in the gutter and reared to be master of mayhem. It’s good to see Crouch and his associates raise the puppet’s ghost to its full, awful splendour, and to once more give the devil his due.

“As you would expect from Crouch, one of theatre’s great designers, The Devil & Mister Punchis a visual delight, played out on a design like a wooden advent calendar full of apertures and trap doors through which the puppets and actors appear. There are shifts of perspective and size, and it’s chock-full of visual puns and jokes as well as mishearing and double-entendres –  all are played to ingenious and often comic effect.” – London Guardian

“It is an ingenious, surreal piece of theatre, chiefly enjoyable for the mix of the farcical and the macabre, and for its quizzical approach to the relationship between the puppeteer and his puppets.” – Financial Times of London

20 thoughts on “Julian Crouch: playing with the devil

  1. Pingback: Puppet Catch-up: Clive’s Posts | Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

  2. Pingback: interview with Julian Crouch: part I | Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

  3. Hey Clive
    Jeff got in touch. Thanks for the article. I’m here if you want to reach out.
    All the best
    Julian

  4. This is a lovely post about my friend Julian Crouch. I forwarded it to Julian who is currently in Salzburg directing Jedermann, which is the Austrian Everyman. He was really pleased to see your post!

    • Thank you so much for e-mailing Julian the link to the piece. I’m much obliged to you and I’m so happy to hear that he was pleased to see it. I hold him in great regard, and have been wanting to write a little about him for a long time. Maybe one day Julian will let me interview him for the Artlog. I know there are many who visit here who’d love to see that.

      PS I thank you too for having me in your list of recommended blogs. I’ve just made a whistle-stop tour of your site, and this evening, when I’ve managed to get some work done today… oh HELL, look at the time… I’m going to list yours at mine. Very best to you Jeff.

      • Hello Clive

        Perhaps I should tell Julian to contact you? Judging by the photographs I’ve seen online Jedermann looks stunning. Also, I used to write the summer puppet shows for Royal Wesh College and I see you’ve been there lately. There are great people there. Thanks for looking at my site. I mainly use it as a kind of storage facility! Your site is an almost daily visit for me and I’ve discovered writers such as Damian Walford Davies and Marly Youmans through it. So thanks!

        • The Mare’s Tale is a return to the stage for me, based as it is on images from the large Mari Lwyd drawings I made some fifteen years ago. James Slater of Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra commissioned the score from Mark Bowden and the libretto from Damian Walford Davies, and I’m directing and designing. An exciting time. We go into rehearsals the last week of August.

          If Julian ever felt he had the time to do an interview for the Artlog, it would be wonderful. He and I clearly share many passions, and I always think that it takes a puppet-person to interview one.

          I’m so pleased you’re enjoying the Artlog. You’ll find a sometimes strange mix of projects and enthusiasms here, but the blog appears to have its aficionados.

          The Royal Welsh College, yes. I know Tina Rivers of old, and approached her about the matter of a puppeteer. The audition was a lot of fun. More of a workshop really, which is the only way when it comes to puppets.

          So pleased too that you’ve discovered the work of Damian and Marly here. I’ve done a clutch of books for Marly and a couple of covers for Damian, and I have forthcoming projects with both of them.

          Best
          Clive

  5. Puppets can disturb me – some of these would make me uncomfortable. They are remarkable pieces of art, but moving and speaking . . . well I don’t know. Thanks for posting them and showing them from a safe distance!
    Elephant

      • Well, originally I didn’t want to sound crazy so I changed the word “frighten” to “disturb” – as in I am frightened by some puppets. It isn’t like a fear of pain or something “normal.” It is like when you get lost in a film or play and sort of leave the present moment because you are so absorbed. Well, with the puppets when the magic happens it feels like I lose track of the present world and am suddenly in a dangerous world. The puppets inhabit and control that world, and much like the “real” fear of being trapped in a dream it is frightening. So now I did more than use a word that might make me seem odd – I have explained my oddity!

        I very much like the storytelling aspects and the artistry. I admire the skilled people involved. It may sound shallow and silly to fear puppets, but for me it doesn’t feel shallow or silly when I get that creepy feeling.
        Elephant

        • It’s neither shallow nor silly. Over the years I’ve met many people who have expressed disquiet in the matters of puppets, masks, and occasionally even dolls. (Some Victorian dolls with glass eyes and pearly teeth can give me the creeps.) Thank you for describing so eloquently what you feel when you’re in the presence of puppets. I don’t think it an oddity, but it is very interesting to read about. Is your fear confined to humanoid puppets, or would you feel the same way when watching, say, Warhorse?

          When I went to work in a professional puppet theatre straight out of school, aged fifteen-and-a-half, I was really interested in the mood of the backstage areas of theatres, especially before and after performances when it was quiet and dark. Some of the productions I worked on used large, Bunraku-style puppets that were stored hanging on racks in the wings, and in the half-light they were undoubtedly uncanny. The sets we worked on were multi-levelled, completely covered in heavy black velvet and felt, and we wore head to toe black velvet suits, including masks and gloves. The masks had visors cut in them, stitched with panels of heavy black gauze. We could see out, though frankly not well, but when on the carefully lit stage, we were visible only to those with sharp eyes as slight shadows. Occasionally, if there were susceptible children in the audience who’d noticed the shadows behind the puppets and were disturbed by them, there would be ructions as they expressed their fears and demanded to be taken out. Thinking back on it, I can quite see why. It must have been sinister.

          • THANK YOU for not thinking it is odd – it takes a very serious person/artist to “listen” to the fear someone has about their art. You have more than a notion about all this.
            No, animation does not bother me AT ALL (unless it is boring – then well, it is boring). My discomfort is about “alive” creatures in action that somehow trigger my worry. Honestly, I do feel weird about dolls (like the ones that bother you) and marionette. The shadows are just like ghosts – well, ghosts are a big fear, but they don’t worry me. Those kids who noticed the shadows were just tuned into the very worrisome world of creatures that “threaten” kids – kids are supposed to have fun at puppet shows, but when they want out (repeatedly) well, (as you figured out) we have to consider what touched them so forcefully that they want out of the theater.
            Elephant

  6. This looks brilliant. Oh I have missed so many interesting things. Thanks for pointing me to experiences unknown! I did see a live version of the piece in Cardiff, with Eric Roberts. As always, he was superb.

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